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The Pygmalion Effect: What does the latest research say?

The Pygmalion Effect: What does the latest research say?

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a renowned sculptor. He had such love for one of his statues that the gods turned it into a real person.

This story gave its name to the Pygmalion Effect, which is the power of having high expectations of someone else. This area has been well researched in education, but many new studies have been released on this over the past year. We now know more than ever before on the power of The Pygmalion Effect – let’s take a look at the new findings and the strategies they suggest.

Why are high expectations important?

In one of the most famous psychological experiments almost 50 years ago, researchers demonstrated the power of high expectations. In this study, teachers were falsely told at the beginning of the year that randomly selected students were ‘late bloomers’ who were going to flourish over the course of the year. When the researchers went back at the end of the year, they found that these students had indeed made more progress. This was attributed to the high expectations that the teachers had for them, which resulted in them being asked more challenging questions and being supported accordingly.

How to raise teacher expectations

As this famous study demonstrates, the expectations that teachers have of their students are influential in their future academic performance.

So, what can schools do to ensure high teacher expectations? Recent research has provided an update to paint a richer picture on which strategies may work.

Everyone can improve

Research has demonstrated that providing educators with information about the impact of high expectations is a good starting point for improvements to be made. In one particular study, it was found that providing evidence of successful achievement of low income students significantly altered the expectations of what was possible.

Evidence from research isn’t always enough

One interesting study looked to change teachers’ negative perceptions of transient students (students who do not take all their lessons at one institution). It found that presenting teachers with information from research papers which showed no difference in achievement between transient and non-transient students did nothing to raise teacher expectations. However, presenting teachers with achievement data from their own school which showed no difference convinced teachers to change their negative beliefs and have higher expectations.

The cost of streaming by ability

Research that followed more than 19,000 students over a five-year period showed how influential streaming can be. They found that students in the lower and middle sets tend to do worse in Maths, Science and English than those who were not streamed by ability. This suggests that struggling students in lower streams may feel that there is less expectation for them to do well, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Praise the process as well as the outcome

Praise is best thought of as a double-edged sword. Done well, it can boost self-belief and motivation. Done badly, it can lead to false-confidence and a fixed mindset.

For example, in one particular study students were asked to solve a moderately difficult mathematical problem before receiving one of two different types of praise. They either received praise for their process (i.e.  “you did really well; you must have tried hard”) or praise based on their abilities (i.e. “you are so clever”).

When they were later told that they were unsuccessful at a more difficult task, the researchers found that those who had been praised for the process were more likely to display higher levels of effort and resilience and did not attribute their failure to a lack of ability. On the other hand, students who were praised for their abilities were less resilient and avoided experimenting with new strategies for fear of looking stupid.

Mastery vs Performance Goals

A good strategy for encouraging students to have high self-expectations is to focus on mastery rather than performance goals. Mastery goals define success in terms of the progress and improvement made by students, whereas performance goals are framed in comparison to others (i.e. ‘did I finish higher than my peers?’).

Mastery goals often lead to a more robust and durable motivation and helps frame mistakes as opportunities to learn. Performance goals, on the other hand, can isolate students and lead to lower performances as the aim is to just be a bit better than others, instead of maximizing one’s own potential.

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Final thought

No-one rises to low expectations. What we permit, we promote. If we lower our standards in terms of behavior and what is possible, then students will automatically and subconsciously follow suit.

By believing that everyone has the capacity to learn and improve, and by supplementing this with strategies such as focusing on process and mastery, we can ensure that no child is ever left behind.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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